Marriage Missions International

GENDER DIFFERENCES: Dealing with Emotionality

Photo by David Castillo Dominici, courtesy of

Photo by David Castillo Dominici, courtesy of

As I say on my show, “Women have a leg up on us when it comes to relationships. We need to listen to our wives —they see things we sometimes don’t.” Specifically, writes Hara Estroff Marano for Psychology Today,

Women’s perceptual skills are oriented to quick —call it intuitive —people reading. Females are gifted at detecting the feelings and thoughts of others, inferring intentions, absorbing clues and responding in emotionally appropriate ways. They empathize. Tuned to others, they more readily see alternate sides of an argument. Such empathy fosters communication and primes females for attachment.

Men on the other hand “focus first on minute detail, and operate most easily with a certain detachment.” In other words, they systemize. And their detachment can cause hard feelings and create distance.

We see this difference between the genders online. A broad survey of U.S. Web usage has found that though Internet users share many common interests, men are heavier consumers of news, stocks, and sports while more women look for health and religious guidance. … “Once you get past the commonalities, men tend to be attracted to online activities that are far more action-oriented, while women tend to value things involving relationships or human connections,” says Deborah Fallows, a Pew Internet researcher and author of the report.

One factor [to remember] with the phenomenal female ability to bless others with empathy and related forms of connectedness: like all good things, it can go overboard.

Females are set up biologically to internally amplify their negative life experiences. …women ruminate over upsetting situations, going over and over negative thoughts and feelings, especially if they have to do with relationships. Too often they get caught in downward spirals of hopelessness and despair.

It’s entirely possible that women are biologically primed to be highly sensitive to relationships. … [But] there’s a clear downside. Ruminators are unpleasant to be around, with their oversize need for reassurance.

If you overstate your emotions as they relate to relationships (and if your guy tends to dismiss emotions), and if you want to draw him out of his hiding place, you’ll want to keep a close eye on how much emotion you display. This doesn’t mean you don’t express yourself. It does mean you’ll want to make sure that how you express yourself is concise and doesn’t overwhelm him.

Many in the church have been led to believe that when a man becomes a Christian, he should become more like, well, a woman. When this doesn’t happen, Christian wives can feel personally ripped off.

Many of the problems we faced in our marriage were misdiagnosed. We went to churches that told us our differences were spiritually founded. Women are more spiritual than men, they said, so the answer was pretty simple: Paul needed to be more woman-like.

Paul chaffed. Eventually, he dug deep into prevalent falsehood and presented another view. Now we understand that much of what we once thought was spiritual gender-based. A peace treaty of sorts followed.

Writes Nancy Kennedy for Focus on the Family,

D. James Kennedy, Chuck Swindoll, James Dobson, my husband—they all burp —with gusto and obvious delight. My point in all of this is simple: men are not women. … Unfortunately for most husbands, it often takes their wives a long time —if ever —to realize that. Too often women blame their difficulty in communicating and relating with an unbelieving husband on their unequal yoke. If he were a Christian, he wouldn’t feel the need to take off in his truck and drive around for hours by himself. But that’s not the case.

Guys do like to burp. Tough not on the record, Moses probably burped. So did Peter and David and Abraham.

Anyway, Kennedy creates a crash course in Masculinity 101 by listing the top 8 guy behaviors that women ought to know. Three deal with fear: fear of losing control, fear of being thought inadequate, and fear of being a hypocrite. One behavior is a subset of these, and it’s the biggest ones wives of passive husbands need to know: Guys are cave dwellers when problems strike.

It’s a male tendency that exists even in non-passive men. They’re prone to go someplace in their minds or someplace spatial, like a garage. Paul does work around the house and goes for bike rides. He carries a recorder everywhere because it’s during these times, when it doesn’t look like he’s solving problems, that he often comes to his best solutions.

The point: The appearance that he’s checked out from life, avoiding everything, doesn’t always make it so. How can you tell the difference between grabbing the remote control out of avoidance or out of the need to step back and analyze? He’ll come to you with his response, though it may not fit your timing and/or be the “right” answer. Allow a reasonable amount of time to pass and set a deadline that’s mutually agreeable. Then let him be.

Remember that for men, doing things alone is very important. It reminds them that they’re efficient, powerful, and capable. They rarely talk about their problems, and when they do, they want it to be high-level, expert information —in a sense, they want to have it already worked out. Asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness. This doesn’t justify reluctance to ask for help, but it can help you realize that often it makes him feel small, and no one likes feeling small.

Place your nature in perspective: to most women, advice doesn’t signify weakness but strength. You see it as evidence that you care and support him. And it’s true. But that’s not how he perceives it, especially when in fear’s grip; in that state, when he gets advice he didn’t ask for, it feels like someone publicly displaying just how incapable he is. Advice, for him, isn’t a path toward better living but a device of exposure and call-out. If he feels trapped, he may try just about anything to get out of the spotlight.

Here’s a good example. Paul has taught a number of guys how to fly-fish. At first he tells them everything they need to know to make a good cast. This is usually done on a nice green lawn, without a fly on the end. When they have the basics down, Paul takes them to an actual river, puts on a fly, and lets them go.

He still gives them instruction, but there comes a point where if the man continues to disregard his help and repeats the same errors, Paul will not help that person further —unless he asks for help. It’s because, from a guy’s perspective, he doesn’t want to embarrass the other man. It’s part of the guy code. Messing up a cast is a lot less embarrassing than having a guy continually pester you with advice.

This is a foreign concept to some women, who are used to both immediate and sustained encouragement, support, and direction, which do not feel embarrassing to most. This is one reason why you need to ask your guy to give you what you want instead of waiting for him to voluntarily give it to you. In many cases, a husband won’t automatically help his wife, not because he doesn’t care, but because it goes against the male code.

This can go against the notion that if you have to ask for help, the help doesn’t really count. But as the above demonstrates, this is not how many men think. (In fact, if a guy offers advice without being asked, other guys call him a “know-it-all” or a “jerk.” Such men give other men the creeps. And your man doesn’t want to be a jerk to you).

When he requests help, however, a man appreciates advice. And your advice is far more likely to be heard and acted upon when he perceives he’s being approached as a part of a problem’s solution, not the problem itself. Motivate him by making him feel needed.

When a man ruminates over problems, such as at work, with money, or in the home, he’s likely to become preoccupied with them until a sort of light appears and a solution presents itself. He’ll go into solve mode: an intense, analytical, and relatively unemotional phase of thinking. He’s prone to figure out the problem on his own, rarely bringing the topic to committee. At least at first —it’s how he’s wired.

Women, by contrast, are inclined to take an integrative and intuitive approach. This means you’re more tooled to ask others for help. When your man goes into solve mode, please don’t mistake it for rejection.

Paul goes into “coach mode” around one hour before a game, and he stays in it during the game through about an hour past the game, win or lose. Abby, our only daughter, and I have learned to accept the three-hour window that’s devoted to the execution and analysis of soccer. We know it’s not a good idea to talk to him during this time, though Abby sometimes sneaks over to the sideline for a hug.

At the same time, Paul does his best to be at least civil, and he gives her a kiss. From his perspective, expecting him to be open to conversation, discussing other topics during this pivotal time, is simply unfair, given his need to focus intensely. He assures me that it physically hurts his head when he’s asked to do so. Being true to his nature in this respect is not a sin. It would feel wrong to him if he didn’t focus this way; he’d feel he was giving his players and their parents less than their best.

NOTE TO THE NICE GUY: What would really help your wife during problem-solving mode is telling her that you don’t know the answer but will get back to her when you do. And then get back to her! Don’t use this as an opportunity to coast in your relationship, hoping she’ll forget about what needs to be handled. That hasn’t worked in the past, and it’s also a lie —it hurts her, angers her, and undermines her trust in you.

Remember, she’s more likely to verbally address relationship issues than you are. A wise man respects her inclination. No woman wants to be married to a man who seems like he doesn’t care.

Of the four primary paths toward intimacy, most men prefer two (touching and togetherness) and most women prefer two (thinking and talking). Just as much emotional gridlock and frustration take place when we try to make our spouse prefer our favored intimacy forms, much personal growth and marital harmony come about when we stop trying to force the other person into our intimacy box.

Some men have flawed thinking about intimate thoughts and talking —they believe it’s synonymous with being controlled. Many think that emotional connection will make it easier for someone to “get” them, lock them up, and hold them captive. Some have wounds and scars from female figure who, once he exposed himself emotionally, took advantage of his vulnerability with attacks, criticisms, punishments, or manipulations. Regardless, though —whatever his reasons —he needs to come to see and believe that he loses nothing form true intimacy. He will gain vitality, passion, safety, and so much more; he just needs to know and feel that he won’t be controlled or taken advantage of.

The above article comes from the book, Married but Not Engaged: Why Men Check Out and What You Can Do to Create the Intimacy You Desire, written by Paul and Sandy Coughlin, published by Bethany House. This book is written to bring hope, encouragement, and insight to women who are frustrated with the passive “nice guy” to whom they’re married. This book aims to help the woman who is on a “quest to create or rediscover genuine intimacy in your marriage (or marriage-to-be). Every woman wants her man to be ‘engaged,’ and not in the sense of putting a ring on her finger, but in terms of being emotionally present.”


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2 Responses to “GENDER DIFFERENCES: Dealing with Emotionality”
  1. Adejoke says:

    (USA) Thank you so much. Blessings and God’s favor.

  2. btec says:

    (USA)  I wish I could have read this (and many other articles on this site) 30+ years ago!

Marriage Missions International